I met Elliot Ackerman through a friend who served under Elliot while they fought at the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. I was very happy to speak with Elliot and he was gracious enough to share his time with me.
We had to juggle schedules, and though being busy, Elliot took the time to discuss his debut novel, Green on Blue with me. The term Green on Blue refers to an attack on “blue” Coalition Forces service members by members of the “green” Afghan Security Forces. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, an Afghan trainee has turned his weapon upon his advisor. No one wins. Mentor and mentee are both likely to die. Trust is not an easy thing to gain or give in Afghanistan because every relationship is off-kilter; made so by the many differing roles and burdens the Afghan people are subject to; any attempt for stability must be aborted because the foundation of their peace must be built upon war, death, honor, revenge, and loss. Elliot dedicated his book to, “ two Afghan soldiers who, consumed by their war, will likely never have a chance to read it.”
Our somber story is about an orphaned Afghan boy named Aziz who lives so many years of his young life on the edge. The book begins soberly within the first paragraph as Aziz states, “I am Ali’s brother. We are from a village that no longer exists.” The Taliban has come in and wiped away the residents and Aziz’s parents. Ali swears that he will care for Aziz but he won’t get the chance to.
His brother Ali convalesces in a hospital after an explosion ruins his body. A Taliban warlord named Gazan is responsible for the attack. Aziz is in a dilemma: how is he to pay for the hospital bill and to also fulfill the code of ethics of his people? There are two terms known to his Pashtun people-nang (honor) and badal (revenge) and he must partake of them both to restore his family honor. He just may have his chance if he joins a militia funded by the Americans called the Special Lashkar.
It is here where Aziz joins the Afghan Special Lakshar unit in order to fulfill his plan and this is exactly where Aziz’s dilemma begins. Aziz will likely do what has always been done in these ancient enclaves throughout Afghanistan; he will scan the past just like his ancestors did and let old rules guide his future choices. The character Mumtaz, a former mujahidin who fought the Soviets, tells Aziz, “The future is in the remembering.” How can a life without war ever be possible to a youth like Aziz when the constructs of Afghan life is built upon bargaining for things that don’t really belong to them. Killing yourself is one thing, killing a murderer that killed your family is another, but killing someone in a Green on Blue is a new animal entirely. How can anyone relate to this? But in a world of moral ambiguity it makes some sense, because a place without real rules allows people to interpret the world in their own fashion in the little fiefdoms of their mind.
Double-crossing, war done for profit rather than to obtain peace, moral complexity and men who swear oaths to another and experience marginalization from all sides is something that Aziz experiences. Elliot has an incredible ability to empathize with the Afghans and it is through Aziz’s vision that we will form our opinion about Green on Blue. Green on Blue is Elliot’s way of stating he understands their struggle as soldiers, that there is a universality through wartime experiences, but can we go as far as to make the same choices as Aziz?
Elliot is currently living abroad in Istanbul and covering the war in Syria. He comes from a family of accomplished people; his brother Nate Ackerman competed in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games for Great Britain and received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His father Peter is a businessman and the founder and chairman of Americans Elect, while his mother is a novelist.
A simple enough Google search will turn up a plethora of information on Elliot; Elliot received a Silver Star from the Battle of Fallujah, a Bronze Star for Valor from multiple deployments with Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) to Afghanistan; five tours in all. Elliot has worn many hats: Marine, officer, writer, commander/advisor of an Afghan Special Forces battalion and even as a CIA Tactical Case Officer for a short while. But we cannot style Elliot into a title and any singular label would be misleading. Elliot’s perspectives are not so readily identifiable by the clothes he wears nor the company he keeps.
The subject matter for his new book could make Elliot out to be somewhat contrarian. Why? Because Elliot chooses a young protagonist who just might go on to do a Green on Blue action and we are supposed to sympathize with him. If we are to follow Aziz’s logic then we should arrive at the same choices as Aziz. This is not going to be easy to do and so, in this, we have the conflict needed to create an interesting story in Green on Blue.
Elliot brings his readers into this strange cinema of odd playfellows. Men with tawny skin and transient feelings which brings forth so many shifting alliances among men who know a lifespan is short in these areas. Elliot discusses the legions of men who live disparate lives, and caught between their conflicts is our boy soldier. In war many are forced to choose the short-term gain for the long-term loss. They are all influenced by the geo-political climate. Each decision that the characters choose is towards a strategy for something they believe is better but no one can ever clearly look into the crystal ball of their life; fingertips may scroll over it, but never penetrate deep enough to find the answers which lay beneath the orbs’ surface. It is here that Aziz is trapped and cannot make his way out of.
Elliot opens up the first chapter with deftly chosen descriptions of Aziz, Ali and the culture of Afghanistan. Through the rubble of Aziz’s life we get to look at the recruitment process and his first soldiering mission. Elliot efforts to employ a non-English speaking rhythm in order to catch a semblance of the lyrical speech patterns of the Afghan natives. It was an ongoing process and he was constantly refining the speaking style. Chapter One opens up into a richly descriptive view of the boys hustling in the market stalls to secure a living. Aziz, the ever thoughtful boy acquires cigarettes for his mother, a habit forbidden to women. This is where Elliot begins to build his case for what is to occur chapters on. Aziz is not a bad guy. He is simply caught in a conflict. It is under men like Commander Sabir, the leader of the Special Lashkar, or men like Gazan that Aziz will find out this is all about commerce and little about anything else. Death and bullets is just a small distraction from the important effort by warlords and American funded militias to make money. Aziz becomes less of a youthful idealist and more of a realist as the story continues. If this war is about commerce, then the Americans brought it there, and so they are to blame as Aziz’s reasoning goes. Elliot doesn’t ask us to come to the same conclusions as Aziz. How could Elliot ever do this when he lost so many friends and brothers over there? But he does ask us to open our mind to seeing another point of view.
When writing Green on Blue, Elliot looked for the similarities rather than the differences between American soldiers and those we fought. Elliot is a huge fans of Yeats An Irish Airmen Foresees His Death. “Those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love.” Elliot is trying to state that after the tumult, after the war when men who fought have some respite, they are able to gather their thoughts and emotions together. After all the anger and pain has dissipated, when causes cease to have their original meaning, that what we have left is solely our experiences. For Elliot, the enemy who was on the other side, in some sense is no different from us. He posits the idea that questioning what it is like to be them, what it’s like to understand those singular strands of conflict that run through the web of war which traps people is an act of reconciliation-Men are free from some original burdens.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
William Butler Yeats
Men become men in the company of other men and really nowhere else. War creates bonds that goes beyond blood ties. I can understand the affinity we may have for others who are not like us but I must stop there. I cannot agree with others who would do a Green on Blue but I can certainly understand the forces of pressure that squeeze them to act. Elliot could have taken the easy way out and written a book about us versus them; good guys with white hats on one side and black-hatted bad guys on another. But he tries something doing something larger than that by writing about a war with some very blurry lines. For Aziz to make good choices means he has to come to sensible conclusions. Conflict never comes from experiencing one horrible event or a gaggle of small ones. Conflict comes when a person doesn’t really have a good grounding in exactly what it is that they value. In Aziz’s case, his values were overshadowed by the ambiguity of what it means to be a man in Afghanistan. The guy with the biggest guns wins and good people die. I can relate in many ways to Aziz, but we must all choose how we want to live life, despite how unfair it is to us. In this world, one cliche saying holds true, “life is not fair.”
Elliot continues to work on his craft and has another book in the works. I think you’ll enjoy Green on Blue.
Mike: Welcome all; this is Mike from Spotter Up Tactical Solutions. Today I’m very lucky to be interviewing Elliot Ackerman. All right, Elliot’s book is called “Green on Blue.” Elliot is a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, where he served five tours of duty and eight years with the Marine Corps, earning the rank of captain. Elliot earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart leading a rifle platoon in the 2004, Second Battle of Fallujah.
Elliot also received the Bronze Star for Valor while leading a Marine Corps special operations Team in 2008. He’s also served Afghanistan as a primary combat advisor for a seven-hundred man Afghan commanded battalion. He’s currently based out of Istanbul and writing about the war in Syria for several publications. Elliot’s joining us today to discuss his book, “Green on Blue” and much more. I want to welcome him now. Hey Elliot, how are you today?
Elliot: Great, thanks for having me, Mike.
Mike: Yes. No, thank you for doing this interview with us. Let’s get into the questions. I had quite a few and so much to say, so much to talk about. As a young man I was told that writers write and painters paint. I was given that advice and they said, “If you want to succeed at something that you should do nothing else,” but you’re clearly a Renaissance Man.
I’d tell you, a warrior, writer, consultant, and you completed your officer’s training as the number one ranked lieutenant out of over two-hundred Marine Corps officers. I see you immersing yourself in a lot of things, but what possessed you to write out of all things you could do and where you could go in your life?
Elliot: Well my mother’s a novelist, so I grew up around writing and books with a real appreciation for literature. When I went to university I studied history and literature as well, so I always felt that I would write. I think the role of the writer in society is also to be out there and not to just be cloistered in some attic only working on your writing or your great magnum opus, but to be out in the world experiencing it. For me, many of the other things I’m involved in often times are fueling my writing.
Mike: I had read something Hemingway wrote in “Soldier’s Home”, he said, “That he hated the dullness of his hometown, where the men play pool and hang around telling stories.” He hates it because having glimpsed a higher intensity of living he now longed for the heroics and detests the trivial. Do you see that something that grabs you, that you want to be over there to write about or is it something that you could do here? I mean some people write from the safety of their home?
Elliot: No, they certainly do. I love that you quote “Soldier’s Home,” I think it’s one of the finest short stories out there, particularly as it relates to the veteran’s experience upon returning from the battlefield. For me, I’ve always had a desire to be a part of the events that define my time and whether that was serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or I was sent down to post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans when I was in the marines or now reporting on the Syrian Civil War.
I’ve just a felt a desire to be at the intersection of those events and I think as a writer it gives you great insight into who people are when they’re put under stress. I mean Faulkner has this great quote, he says, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” I think war and global conflict is a great place to gain insight into that, but it’s not the only place.
Mike: True and then we’ve got the, what, ‘The Thin Red Line” by James Jones, a “Catch-22”, everybody’s got some respected novel they love or phrase; one of my favorites is “My War Gone By,” by Anthony Lloyd where he’s really an observer, but do you have a favorite author?
Elliot: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite author. I definitely have a number who I admire and respect, from the old masters like Conrad, Hemingway, you mentioned, Graham Greene.
Elliot: When I was writing “Green on Blue” I was reading a lot of Styron, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There’s a book by a man named André Malraux, Frenchman, called “Man’s Fate,” which is about the failed Chinese Communist uprising at the beginning of the twentieth century. That book meant a lot to me. I wouldn’t say I have one favorite writer, but I definitely have writers that I keep going back to.
Mike: Now there are a lot of books coming out right now, and you’ve seen them, and over the last, what, twelve, thirteen years here, a lot of books coming out of Iraq. You’re coming out from Afghanistan and we don’t see a lot of that and also the context of what people are writing about is different from what they’re writing about in Iraq. Why write about Afghanistan instead of Iraq? You spent a lot of time in Iraq.
Elliot: Well, you know I’ve written about Iraq. I’ve written about it in my reportings. I’ve written about it in some of my short fiction as well. It just happened that I served as an advisor to Afghan troops when I was there and I had a real want to try to tell their story as best I could and that’s what “Green on Blue” is, it’s the first person narrative of an Afghan soldier. That was really the book’s ambition, was to try to render the Afghan War from their perspective as best I could.
Yeah, as I mentioned, I was an advisor to these Afghan troops and we had fought together and bleed together and morn friends together, done the things that people always do when they fight together. When I came home I knew I’d never see these guys again, so I really had an ambition to try to render the world as we had seen it and hopefully as they had seen it and to do that as kind of as an act of friendship towards them.
Mike: I was watching the YouTube “Green on Blue,” with Politics and Prose, that you were reading from and the first chapter was amazing and where Aziz is buying his mom cigarettes and I thought, man this really rich in imagery and you’ve got such a great focus on the details. I got a sense of that, you know, he buy’s his cigarettes and he’s out there with his brother and very, very rich imagery. A few people have said, “It’s lyrical,” they’ve said, “It’s powerful,” some people have said, “It’s haunting.” Where did this come from within you?
Elliot: Well, it’s a story of imagination. I think it can, you know, the book in some respects, you know you look at and you might say that novel is a war novel, but I’ve never really thought of it as a war novel when I was writing it. In some ways I wasn’t even try to write a war novel, I was trying to write a book that got into universal themes of family, friendship, betrayal, what we do and what we’ll sacrifice for the things we love.
When I was writing the book, the emotional places I was mining were not necessarily my wartime experiences. I mean they were my experiences being a brother, a son, a father, a husband, all of that, so that was, more than any other place, that was the place I was going to.
Mike: I think that’s very powerful. You’ve got a lot more complexity going on here. Someone commented, they said, “That it’s brave” and what you’ve done is showing empathy for writing about the protagonist and the consciousness of this young Afghani boy, so very different. I know I keep going back to Hemingway, he said, basically, “We’re all bitched from the start and you have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously and you have to use that damned hurt, don’t cheat with it.”
I think you probably have done that. I mean looking in with a microscope on your life; do you feel that you were brave with the writing? I mean this is something completely different from what we’re seeing.
Elliot: Well, writing a novel it was obviously a process. In early drafts of the book the structure was not Aziz’s voice straight out, told in the first person. It was, actually, structurally it was built so Aziz was telling his story to an American case officer. Structurally it was sort of had kind of like a bit of a Conradian build, like “The Heart of Darkness,” where Marlow is sitting on a boat in the Thames telling his story about going up the river to see Kurtz, so it was Aziz telling his same story. After writing the book and building it out that way I started asking myself why have I put this frame in place?
Why do I need Aziz be telling his story to this American instead of telling his story directly to the reader? When I really asked myself that question, I realized I built in that one American character as a crutch to give me the excuse to render Aziz’s voice and I knew that if I was going to tell this story truly I needed to let Aziz speak directly to the reader. I removed that and knew that I would be allowing the novel to fail or succeed based off of the strength of Aziz’s voice and hopefully it succeeded.
Mike: Was your writing a little more stilted and as that happened organically, was it easier for you? I suppose, was it something more of a process, I have to write a thousand words day. Did you find yourself to be making more progress?
Elliot: Sure, I definitely have a process and there’s nothing fancy about it. I actually write a thousand words a day when I’m creating new material or I’m revising thirty pages a day or ten pages a day or wherever I’m at on my process I have daily goals that I hit. You know, with regards to Aziz’s voice, it was just a process of constant refinement.
Constant refinement, sitting down with manuscript, reading it out loud to myself with a number two pencil, marking it up and then doing it again; time after time to make sure that it sounded right. It’s nothing particularly fancy, just a lot of listening and really trying to hear the tone of the voice and making sure that it was locked in tight.
Mike: I already get a sense of it. I mean I know that the concept of our English language is different; our prose is different from theirs, in another language. You know in the, a little more, I wouldn’t say the word is abstract; I suppose a little more, that’s it.
Elliot: Sure, a friend of mine who’s a novelist, we were sitting down and at one point I was telling him about the book, he started asking me about the language issue in the book. He said, “Well, how are you handling the language,” because obviously these characters are not speaking English. I sort of explained it to him and he looked at me and sort of smiled and he said, “You know, you’ve written a novel in Pashto.”
I never really thought of it that way before, but in the book there’s only one American character, named Mr. Jack, and when he speaks, he’s an American who speaks some rudimentary Pashto, so he’s speaking in Pashto. Aziz and some of the other Afghan soldiers note when he speaks they say he speaks like a child because his Pashto, as I mentioned, is very basic. How to handle the language is a challenge throughout the writing the book because it was, and is, a novel that is, in effect, writing in Pashto.
Mike: Now, where did you write most of your novel? Did you write it here or did you write it overseas? Some people feel that they need a certain environment. Hemingway said, “Do you lock yourself in a room without windows” and other people say, “Hey, you know, coffee culture.” Where did all your creativity come from?
Elliot: Well, I never felt like I had the space to write when I was in the service and I don’t mean time as much as I mean just the mental space. I was just too close to the experience and in the experience; even though I wasn’t writing my own experience. I actually started writing the very first scene in Afghanistan, but it was actually a couple of days after I decided it’d be my last deployment and the act of deciding that I was going to leave is what gave me the requisite space to begin writing and trying to craft a story.
In terms of the dailiness of my writing routine, I actually sort of need a little bit of energy around me, so I’m often in a coffee shop or a café. Where I live in Istanbul there’s lots of great cafes and the nice thing is I don’t speak Turkish that well, so I can’t understand what anyone’s saying around me. I kind of setup shop there and I just sort of like the energy of having people around.
Mike: You got your book out now, what are your thoughts on good or bad reviews? It looks like all the reviews that are coming in are fantastic. Is that something that you by, some people do?
Elliot: I think the thing is, when you’re writing anything, and particularly a novel, that’s something that you’re holding very close to you for a long time; you have a very intimate relationship with the book. Then once the book becomes published you’re launching it out into the world and you’re actually hoping that strangers will share a similar intimacy with the work that you’ve shared with it all along. If the readers are finding that obviously I’m happy.
Mike: How do you relax when you’re writing? How do you relax at all, are you a person who’s always on the move? I get this idea that you are. You’ve done quite a bit in your career.
Elliot: Well obviously when I’m writing I’m not relaxing, I’m working. I have two small kids. I have a four-year old daughter and two and a half-year old son. I spend time with my kids, that sort of takes me to center. If you want to be humbled, spend an afternoon with a two and half-year old and a four-year old, they’ll put you in your place.
Mike: Yup. Well, here’s a question for you, T.S. Eliot, he wrote, “My mind may be American but my heart is British;” where’s Elliot Ackerman? Do you have a place to live?
Elliot: You mean in terms of nationality?
Mike: Yeah, are you an expatriate of the world? I think you had said you were a patriot of Fallujah and I thought that was very profound.
Elliot: Well, in that case, yeah, I was writing, saying, that I think that many of us have been defined by these wars and so we find ourselves as expatriates of these places because we’re defined by a place that we can never go back to. I know I’ll never go back to those places. I mean, I’m an American, but I definitely feel at times when I’m an American expatriate.
Mike: Right. A lot of people are going to feel that there are going to be wars without victories in the Middle East. Do you believe that there’s ever going to be peace there or a semblance to what we have here or in a place where you don’t always have to do conflict resolution every day?
Elliot: That assumes that we have peace in the United States. Listen, I do believe that war’s fundamental to the human condition and what we write about we write about the human condition. I’ll continue to write about war, I’ll continue to try to write about love between relationships. I’ll continue to try to write about just what it means to be a person. I don’t know if there’s going to be peace anytime soon, I sort of doubt it, but I want to continue to be engaged.
Mike: Well, you also quoted; I think it was Yeats, an Irish airman foresees his death how did that strike you? How did you pick that up? Where did that come from?
Elliot: That poem, I’ve always loved that poem. A lot of literature, I think, means different things to you at different times in your life and that poem, although I probably first read it when I was a high school student, has come to mean a lot more to me recently. As it goes, the opening is, “I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above. Those that I fight I do not hate. Those that I guard I do not love” and it goes on, oh and my favorite part is, “Nor law, nor duty bade me fight. Nor public men, nor cheering crowds. A lonely impulse of delight drove me to this tumult in the clouds.”
The reason that poem means a lot to me, is I think he’s really getting at sort of the universality of the wartime experience and the fact that so many of us are driven and not for any type of cause or to fight on one side or the other, but because it sort of fits, it’s this tumult that we’re driven to. It’s sort of that impulse of delight, just the excitement of the experience; and whether you’re an American soldier or and Afghan Mujahideen or an Iraqi insurgent, we have that common experience and it defines us. I think that that’s something, a theme, that’s worth examining. It’s one I think of often.
Mike: I think that’s very true. You said that what happens when the cause you fight for threatens to destroy you, you know, it’s something…I don’t recall who said it, I think you said that my business is not to compare reason, my business is to create. I don’t know, I think it was Blake, but I’d have to look again. Do you feel often that you’re guided by an emotion or something that drives you from within? Do you tee off of someone else’s queues or how do you that when you write or create or choose a challenge?
Elliot: Well, I think for me it will often be just a theme that I’m interested in exploring. The way I process thought and wrestle with ideas is through writing and primarily through fiction, although I write some nonfiction. Often as I’m writing nonfiction, it’s really me sort of metabolizing sort of the initial inputs of what will become a story. I think with what I was saying in that regard, yeah, I was sort of interested in this idea in Afghanistan with how we’ve been viewing the wars as Americans and how we often characterize the Afghans.
I wanted to try to peel back the layers on what, at face value, is sort of the most deceitful thing an Afghan could do, which is a green on blue attack, where an Afghan shoots one of his American advisors. As you know, green on blue is shorthand for green being Afghan troops and blue being U.S. troops. As I was exploring through that frame, the idea of a green on blue kind of takes on a bit of a metaphor, becomes metaphor, you know, what happens when the cause you’re fighting for threatens to destroy you. That’s a journey many of the characters in the novel take.
Mike: Yeah. You have a brother, is he your older brother or is he your younger brother?
Elliot: Ah older, two years.
Mike: When you wrote with Aziz and Ali, is there some commonality there as you think about this?
Elliot: I mean sure, on some issues I’m obviously trying on what I think about what it means to be a brother, I’m thinking about the experience of having a brother. I mean there’s real commonality in my relationship with my brother and what we’ve experienced is certainly not what happened with Aziz and Ali. Yeah, I have an experience of what it’s like to be a brother and it obviously weighs into the writing of the story.
Mike: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Elliot: I would tell an aspiring writer to never give up, to work hard, I think it takes a lot of discipline to write; you have to have that discipline to get the words onto the page, and to exercise your rejection muscles. Rejection is part of the business, it’s part of writing. Every writer experiences rejection; even the best writers’ experience rejection still. That would be some basic advice.
Mike: Is there any advice you’d give to your inner self? Are these the decisions that you would make if you were given those choices again? To write, to experience what you experiencing being in Istanbul now, being in Turkey covering the war?
Elliot: Advice to myself? No, I think I did all right.
Mike: I think you probably did too. That’s funny. Well, I don’t have any more questions for you, Elliot, but I just wanted thank you for your time.
Elliot: Okay. No, hey, thank you for your interview.
Mike: It was fun to talk. Good conversation.
Mike: Okay. Guys if you want to connect more from Elliot then check out his articles in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vogue, let’s see, another one, The New Republic to name just a few. You can find Elliot’s page at elliotackerman.com and you can grab his book on amazon.com. Again, Elliot, thanks very much. Thanks for tuning in, this is Mike from Spotter Up Tactical Solutions and I’m signing off. Have a good one Elliot.
Elliot: You too Mike.